Autumn Leaves Question

On the standards workout for Autumn Leaves, the 3D chord is 3 4 #5 6 7 1 2. In the first part of the song the lyrics “of red and” are notes 3 #4 #5. Please comment or answer the following

  1. Would you call the 3D a secondary dominant chord? It’s dominant, has notes out of key, and resolves a perfect fifth down to the 6 chord.

  2. Would it not be more accurate for this chord to be written out as 3 #4 #5 6 7 1 2?

  3. I know this is semantical, but would you agree with the following way of thinking of this chord? So I would assume traditional/non IFR’ers would say to play the mixolydian scale with this, but I feel like that’s not the best way to think of this because mixolydian means it’s the fifth harmonic environment, which it’s not. But out ears do like that “mixolydian” sound. So I think it’s most accurate to say this is Chord three with mixolydian flavour. The mixolydian flavour means notes 4 and 5 get sharpened.


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Great observation! The 3D chord in that moment is definitely what people call a secondary dominant. Its function is to cause us to expect (and crave) that movement to the 6- chord. This always involves plagiarizing the 5D chord somehow, but there are lots of variations.

The most common variation is the one we study first in IFR, which gives us the scale 3, 4, #5, 6, 7, 1, 2. This isn’t the mixolydian scale, as you correctly pointed out. If the name is important to you, this is usually called the “phrygian dominant” scale, which is just a fancy way of saying 3D.

What’s happening in the melody is also very understandable if you consider what it really means to tonicize or prepare a chord. It really means momentarily treating it like a “note 1”. So those note 3, #4, #5, 6 are just a reference to the notes 5, 6, 7, 1 leading up to an imaginary note 1 (which in this case is actually note 6).

So you can think of this as just a more extreme version of 3D. Not only are we bringing in the #5 to make this a dominant chord (giving our destination a natural 7th), but we’re even bringing in #4 to give our destination a natural 6th as well. So when we play the notes 3, #4, #5, 6, our ear will relate to this very comfortably as our old friends 5, 6, 7, 1 leading up to our destination.

This is probably a good moment to remember that nothing we study in IFR ever limits what you can play. All of these sounds are right there on your tonal map, and they all produce different effects. So there is no “right” scale to play over a 3D chord. It’s just that the notes 3, 4, #5, 6, 7, 1, 2 are the most common and the ones most people will instinctively imagine in this moment. But another very pretty sound that we can imagine in this moment are the notes 3, #4, #5, 6 because this tonicizes note 6 even more strongly. Now we’re plagiarizing the 5D chord even more, reminding the ear of the familiar path of notes 5, 6, 7, 1.


Awesome! Thanks Dave, so helpful as always :grinning:

Curious… Did you think it’s #4 because you’re trying to make it a major second interval because the 5D has a major second (if the 13th was added)?

I think many on the interwebs would recommend mixolydian because the 3D, in root position, has the intervals 1,3,5,b7 because that #5 gives you the major third. At least most guitar websites would stop there (at least the ones I’ve read!)… that’s one reason I like IFR — treating this as a 3D secondary dominant keeps you mindful of where you’re going and where you were so your improv can be informed by the whole picture.

I really think all three of us are saying the same thing in a slightly different way. The 3 chord is usually a minor 7. But it’s been altered (3D7) to make us want to go back to the 6 chord. In the major scale the only D7 chord present is the 5 chord. So when my brain hears a D7 is automatically going to want to play the notes in the 5D chord, that’s why I think it’s #4. I think this is what all three of us are saying to be honest hah.

I guess that was part of my question, why do you hear #4 as in the 3D as part of the 5D structure? If you played 3 note exactly the same as the 5th harmonic environment, I could see how #4 works its way in there… but then so would a b2, but you wrote your scale with a 2 so I was curious why you proposed the intervals in item 2 on your list:

Yeah I see what you’re saying, I actually noticed that today when practicing hah. I get what you mean with the b2, I’m going to call it #1 to avoid having a b2 and a 2. So to completely mimic the fifth harmonic environment it would be 3 #4 #5 6 7 #1 2. I was wondering that myself, until I had a realization…

Everyday the IFR sinks in a little deeper for me, and I’ve recently changed how I practice because of it. I think practicing “pure harmony” each chord and harmonic environment gives you pretty much all the sounds you need to make music. Once you get to mixed harmony, when a chord of another key comes in, then it’s going to alter your scale to replicate sounds you hear from practicing your pure harmony.

So how I’m actually going to start approaching music with mixed harmony is the following, I’ll use this song for an example. The chord is 3D, the scale I can play with the least amount of changes is 3 4 #5 6 7 1 2. Improvise that by singing melodies, if it clicks then you know that sound works in that moment, and with practice hopefully I can bring musical ideas on the fly. I got 3 #4 #5 6 7 1 2 because the melody in the song is based on that sound. Should I change the 1 to a sharp 1? Well trying singing melodies and see what comes out naturally. For me the 1 came up naturally instaed of the sharp 1. So I’m going to put these two “scales” in my back pocket next time I come across this progression (which is probably often).

Brock, interesting thoughts.

Your practice sounds harmony-centric from reading that. The chord defines the environment, and you’re improvising melodies over that. Did I understand it right?

This took me awhile to be comfortable with, I always wanted some rule I could follow. But on the other hand you do need something so you can be in control with your musical thoughts.

I wouldn’t say the chord defines the environment (assuming you mean harmonic environment). Because in this situation I’m not hearing it in the third harmonic environment. I’m hearing things in the 6th harmonic environment in this situation but with an altered scale (the #5). But how do I decide if I’m going to play #4 or 4? My theory right now is my brain is comfortable with 6 7 1 2 3 4 5. But as soon as something changes (ie #5 to 5) I think my brain will assume another sound that it’s comfortable with. So during these early stages (still developing skills) I just sing out the rest of the scale, then I say just play that scale. So I heard it in the 6th harmonic environment 6 7 1 2 3 4 #5. Now in this situation, I took the melody from the actual song and noticed “of red and” had a sharp 4 in it too. So I sang those lyrics over the 3D chord (still hearing int he 6th harmonic environment) and the scale 6 7 1 2 3 #4 #5 came out. Then I just improvise with both those sounds/scales. Then from this I’ll say "when I’m doing a 7 3 6 in jazz (which is very common) I know that on the 3D chord my brain likes to hear these do scales, and what ever melody comes out naturally at that time with just come out. I’m no expert but this is how things make sense to me at this current point of my journey haha

Sorry to bump a long finished conversation, but I wanted to say thanks for the discussion, but also pick up on a point you’ve made above about hearing the song in the 6th environment. I think of Autumn Leaves being in a ‘minor key’ in the sense that 6 is the tonic and so on, and I’ve seen most non-IFR sources describe it as being in G minor (or whatever other key).

But both in his book, and in the standards workout, David is very strong about saying this is in a Major key, and I just wondered what other people thought about that?

From my own point of view I don’t really much care - thinking about the song it as a series of 2 5 1 and 7 3D 6 progressions makes much more sense to me than thinking about them as Major and Minor 251s, but equally I’m happy with the idea of the ‘key’ starting at the 6 rather than the 1 - I definitely hear the 6 as the ‘home’ note in this song, so it makes much more sense to me to think of it as in G minor rather than Bb major.

As I say, it doesn’t really matter to me either way, but I’m wondering why David (whose musical judgement I certainly trust!) is so clear that it’s in a major key? Is because of the convention of the tonic chord being the 1, and to make sense of describing the major 2 5 1 in those terms (rather than as a 4 minor, 7D, 3 major progression), or something more subtle to do with the harmony? And I guess, the corollary question is, if this tune isn’t ‘in’ a minor key, what if any tunes are - what does being in a ‘major’ or ‘minor’ key actually mean?

Sorry big questions really, but any thoughts on this WRT Autumn Leaves, or just more generally area appreciated!

Hey! Where did you read him saying it’s in a major key? It’s really all semantics. In my opinion there are no major or minor keys. There are 12 keys with 7 different perspectives in each. The key is named after note 1.

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David says it in his original book when he’s giving examples of different tunes in different genres, and showing they’re based on the major scale (roundabout page 100?) - he says the idea Autumn leaves is based on a minor key is a myth.

And yes, it’s all semantics, but I guess I’m asking what’s the purpose of those semantics - is there any advantage in labelling the key after note 1 if the tonic I can hear and feel is note 6?

Oh I see! Yes I agree there’s always a purpose to semantics. Yes! There are multiple advantages to this in my opinion. Everyone is entitled to hear music in their own way but I hear Autumn leaves bounce back and forth between note 1 being the tonic and note 6 being the tonic. Some might say this goes back and forth between the C major and A minor for example (the popular way). Why call it two different things when everything is just coming from on scale? It’s more simple to say this is in the key of C, rather than C maj and A min. Also by simplifying it to one key you see the whole song on the tonal map, which is VERY powerful imo! If you say key of C maj and then A min you are almost visualizing the song in two different worlds and making the song more complicated. For the switch between note 1 or note 6 being the tonic doesn’t happen at the same time for me. Sometimes it sort of flickers back n forth until it stabilizes - this would be a nightmare if you think of it as two separate keys, but it’s way more manageable if you picture everything on one tonal map.

Fair enough, but a couple of comments.

First I don’t really get that flickering between tonics when I play Autumn Leaves - I hear note six as the tonic really, without fail, throughout.

But in any case, while it’s clearly more simple to think of it as ‘C Major’ instead of ‘C Major and A minor’, you’d get all the same benefits and simplicity if you just said it was in ‘A minor’, wouldn’t you? You’re using the exact same tonal map, just using the A / note 6 as the tonic (which is what you’re hearing at least some of the time in any case).

Now obviously this is down to personal preference to a degree, I’m just wondering if there are any specific advantages that we haven’t mentioned to choosing to describe the key as C major as opposed to A minor!

Yeah for sure there is real no right or wrong.

Seeing as you hear the whole song relative to note six, I understand how you’d want to call it A minor, I don’t think anyone would disagree with you there!

Since we are all trying to get better I just want to ask a few things and maybe it could lead to us both improving. How are you listening to this melody? Off of a recording? Who is the artist? Have you ever tried singing the melody while playing the chords on guitar/piano? Have you tried improvising melodies with your voice over the changes? I only ask because for me, a big part of what makes this song so moving is the switch between the 1 being the tonic and the 6.

There’s certainly no right or wrong way of hearing a song, but I hear it switching between the 1 and 6. To get really picky I prefer just calling it in the Key of C. Not C major or A minor. I don’t think of a key of having tonality any more, it’s just a group of 7 notes. Since you only hear it relative to note 6 I think it’d be fair to call it A minor though.

I’m so impressed by the conversation on this thread and on this forum in general! There are so many thoughtful questions and insightful comments, it’s just great to see.

Let me clarify what I meant by that point that it’s a myth that songs like Autumn Leaves are based in a minor key. I am NOT saying that you shouldn’t feel an attraction toward the tonal center of the 6- chord. Of course you should!

What I was trying to address with that comment is a common misunderstanding that a lot of beginning improvisers have. Since the major scale is the basic framework in which all western harmony was developed, this leads to a very innocent question. Is there a whole other harmony system based on the minor scale? In other words, after mastering the major scale and its seven chords and whatever else IFR wants to teach me, will I then have to go off and repeat this entire process for the minor scale? Like some kind of parallel musical universe where everything is different?

And so what I was trying to point out is that Autumn Leaves is just made from the seven chords of the major scale, with the 3- chord converted to 3D in order to tonicize the 6- chord. This I think is incontrovertible. So that was my only point, that Autumn Leaves is made from the same seven chords that we study in Pure Harmony, plus the 3D chord which is one of the very first concepts we study from Mixed Harmony.

But I didn’t mean to suggest that you should be feeling an attraction to note 1 as your tonal center. That’s an entirely separate issue. A song can be in the “key of G” (meaning that note 1 = G) even if you spend the entire time in the Am chord (the 2- chord). As Brock said, this is really just semantics. So if it makes more sense to you to say that my hypothetical song is actually in the key of A minor, and it’s a dorian minor similar to the 2- chord, that’s totally fine. My goal isn’t to get everyone to think the same way about any given song. The goal is to help you see how harmony works so that you can move easily between different points of view and finally settle on the one that you like most.

And as has already been pointed out in this thread, there’s even another layer of subjectivity here beyond the semantics, and that’s what each person feels. So leaving aside the semantics of what we mean by the “key”, it turns out that we don’t even all agree on what we’re feeling when we listen to the song. Some people might feel that the tonal center is note 6 the whole time. Some people might feel that it’s note 1 the whole time. And some people might feel that it moves between 1 and 6. There’s no right or wrong in any of this.

This is why I say that all harmonic analysis is subjective. All we can strive for is to acquire the vocabulary to express what WE feel when we listen to a piece of music. If you’re able to hear a song like Autumn Leaves and come up with a way of describing this song to yourself such that it makes sense to you, then in my opinion this is the very definition of a successful analysis.

I hope that’s more clear. Sorry if I caused confusion with that rather offhand comment I made in the book. I love that we have this forum to talk about these things. Thank you to everyone who is contributing such brilliant questions, ideas and energy! - David


Thanks for the replies guys, agree it’s a lovely conversation.

In reply to your questions Racha I’ve listened to countless versions of Autumn Leaves by different artists, and I’ve also played it a lot using David’s standard workouts backing track, and sung along while playing (though in honesty my singing isn’t always pitch perfect!), so I’m fairly comfortable in feeling like I’ve internalised a fair part of the harmony. The other thing is I don’t really want to call the key A minor rather than C Major - I honestly don’t really care, I’m just interested in why, and the combination of playing the song a lot, and feeling it ‘in’ note 6 is what piqued my interest in the conversation.

But I think it’s really interesting in what you - and David to a degree - is saying about thinking of this as in ‘C’ rather than in ‘C Major’. I think that makes perfect sense, and certainly David your explanation is reassuring in terms of confirming what I thought I’d understood about both IFR and music in general.

But then this leads me into wondering how useful talking about the ‘major’ scale is in the IFR approach in general. I mean obviously the ‘major scale’, or more precisely the Ionian mode of the major scale, is completely internalised in all our ears, but the labelling of it is full of messiness, and you end up in these kind rabbit holes where we’re talking about naming a key.

If the chief insight of the IFR method is we think in terms of a fixed harmonic map, and we’re going to describe it in terms of IFR numbers, and we’ll move our tonics up and down that map depending on how we’re feeling the music, then why bring the language of major and minor into this at all, would it be clearer to describe the map as the ‘IFR scale’, and then just refer to whatever note 1 happens to be in any given case. Maybe bringing in the language of ‘major’ and ‘minor’ brings with it a bunch of other stuff from other perspectives - which perhaps can cause obfuscation of the key concepts in IFR?

Sorry, my mind is kind of wandering here, so sorry if this doesn’t make sense, but I find this all fascinating!

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Yes! That’s it exactly Tim. In my own notes and thinking, I actually don’t even use the concepts of a major key or minor key at all. I mean, obviously I know what those words mean and so if a song is in the 6- chord the whole time, I know that people would call that a minor key. But the only question I’m asking when I’m trying to understand a new song is where to put my map. Kind of like moving into a new apartment and trying to decide where to put the carpet.

So instead of asking questions about how to label the overall tonality of a song, I’m really just looking for the best place to put my “note 1” so that the rest of the song is as easy to visualize as possible. But this choice of where to “put my 1” doesn’t imply anything at all about which notes will feel like tonal centers, and of course it also doesn’t limit in any way what I’m able to play. So the fact that my tonal map is in a given location doesn’t mean that I’m actually going to play those seven notes of the major scale more than other notes. It’s really just a map of the landscape. Some songs might even suggest moving the map in the middle of the song. Again there is no right or wrong in that.

Music is relative, so using a relative tonal map is the easiest way to picture where the sounds are. But music is also surprising, complex, abstract and playful. So no matter where you decide to place your map, there’s always going to be all kinds of stuff that’s going to challenge your mind and break your models. So what we most need is not any particular point of view but rather the personal experience and mental agility to be able to process all of these wonderful surprises and make sense of them in our own way.

It’s funny how in your own thinking you’re actually retracing much of the thinking that went into the IFR method in the first place. All on your own, you’ve uncovered the inherent limitations in concepts like “major key” and “minor key”. You’ve even hit upon the idea that we can’t really refer to the “major scale” of the music because we need a less prejudiced concept. You proposed the term “IFR scale”. If you just keep going with that thought process you’ll realize that even the concept of a “scale” is maybe a bit more than what you want to suggest, and this is precisely what leads to the term “IFR tonal map”. :slight_smile:


Thanks David. To circle this back to my initial questions that prompted this discussion, it seems I misunderstood the purpose of your observation in the book about Autumn Leaves not being in a ‘minor key’. It shows how difficult the language around all this is, but I’m going to stick with my feeling it is a tune that primarily lives in world six on the IFR tonal map, and leave it there!

great! thanks a lot for that! for me, it’s a useful clarification of some things about the IFR concept.

cheers, all!

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